The Middle East’s 1789…or 1848


It is still far too early to know if the torrential protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Syria will lead to meaningful change. Democrats around the world are hopefully predicting that every country will soon become a democracy. However, where will democracy come from? Democratisation is usually a long and winding road, unless it happens by revolution; and if it happens by revolution, a period of undemocratic violence could reign, as in France in the 1790s, which could lead to the election of another strongman who will restore stability, and the cycle of violence would begin again. After over a decade of experiment as a republic, France crowned Napoleon emperor in 1804, and brought in King Louis XVIII in 1815. Nonetheless, there is always the prospect for real change as well: after all, France is today a vibrant democracy.

Most of the protesters in the Middle East seem not to be demanding democracy but jobs, equality and an end to corruption. Rather than demanding democracy, they are protesting dictatorship. Some regimes will placate protesters by doling out gifts in the form of job-creation programmes, the sacking of the most corrupt ministers, wealth redistribution and so on, which is what democracies do, but others will be swept away. The important question is not have the Ben Alis and Mubaraks gone, but what will replace them?

Many of the democracies in the world are merely electoral democracies. In other words, there are basic freedoms and basic choices as to who will govern, but not much popular control of the government. Most governments are only accountable at election time. Egypt is certainly not a democracy yet, as the army is still in charge, and it might take a long period of hard work if the people truly want to be free. I expect many of the Middle Eastern dictatorships under fire are no more fortunate than Mubarak, but each country’s prospects for democracy are on similarly unsure ground.

In 1848, the people of Europe protested in nearly every major city on the continent. The reactionary governments in charge at the time were, like those of today, unprepared and insensitive to their people’s problems until revolt broke out. France’s terrified King Louis Philippe abdicated, much like the two dictators (so far) who have left their posts in North Africa. King Charles Albert of Piedmont issued a moderate constitution to quell riots. But the military everywhere knew they had the power to repress the revolts if they wanted. Prague was bombarded during its riots, which ended in failure. In Paris, radical republican and socialist protesters were suppressed. Austria’s new constitution was rescinded 1851, two years after its inception. International wars took place. Possibilities for all these occurrences exist in the Middle East.

Historian Robert Wiener explained the initial successes of the revolutions as indicative not of the strength and unity of the protesters but of the weaknesses of the governments they opposed. The protesters were not leaders and did not offer real economic or social programmes. The same might be said for today’s movements. Alexis de Tocqueville feared the revolutions he witnessed on the streets of Paris, because of the violent class struggle they indicated; Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, welcomed them.

Historian GM Trevelyan believed that the revolutions of 1848, the Spring of Nations, failed, because on the surface, nothing changed. Yet, Hans Rothfels, another historian, said that, in fact, the revolutions had major effects: a leveling of inequalities, universal male suffrage, and the understanding throughout society that the people would no longer be held under the thumbs of absolute monarchies. A new generation of leaders took over after 1848. Today, we are witnessing (probably) successful popular uprisings that may or may not bring what the people want. We can take hope from one fact, however. The people of all these places have shown that they will not simply put up with anything anymore. Like in 1848, some things will change: formerly unresponsive governments will need to sit up and take notice, and foreign powers will benefit less by choosing sides and propping up corrupt regimes. For at least a generation to come, the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and probably everywhere else that is in turmoil right now, will speak of the time when they rose up against their masters, and they will do it again if pushed.

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.